Catherine Ford Gets Personal

One year: A challenge for change


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Spread out in front of us are acres of blooming wildflowers, carpeting the sub-alpine meadow in a riot of colour. Scarlet Indian paintbrush, feathery beige Western anemone, buttercup-yellow cinquefoil, purple heather, blue forget-me-not and white heliotrope are the realistic embodiment of Claude Monet’s garden at Giverny. Only wilder, of course. In the mountain air the colours are more vibrant and a lot less civilized than Monet’s impressionistic garden paintings.

We are spending four days in the pristine wilderness at the foot of Mt. Assiniboine, at Assiniboine Lodge, comfortable in a log cabin. Indeed, comfortable without the basics of “civilized” travel – indoor plumbing. And you know what? We don’t care.

What’s an en suite when compared to the privilege of being able to explore the wilderness all around us that is, in essence, our back yard here in the West?

Mt. Assiniboine Lodge lies at the foot of the mountain nestled into the meadow at the edge of Lake Magog. The lodge and its six guest cabins share the nearly 40,000 hectares of wilderness that is Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park with rustic cabins for hikers, overseen by a B.C. Park Ranger office with the Canadian flag flying in the foreground, and even-more rustic public campgrounds. They are part of an original concept of wilderness tourism first promoted by the CPR. There isn’t a road, a suit, a convenience store, a television or any other modern convenience for miles in any direction.

Access is by helicopter, although the more rugged can hike in (and back out) from Sunshine Village over about 26 kilometers of mountain terrain. Needless to say, we opted for the helicopter which whisks six guests at a time through the mountain valley from Mt. Shark, a spectacular 12-minute ride, hugging the mountainside and swooping over lakes, streams and mountain passes.

We had been here before, many years ago, but when we learned the lodge would be closed for nearly two years for renovations at the end of this year, we were moved to return to experience the magic of the place.

Part of that magic is due to the Renner family who, for the past 28 years, have operated Assiniboine Lodge, loving it and caring for its guests winter and summer. Sepp and Barb Renner and their children, Andre, Sara and Natalie and assorted in-laws in recent years have poured their love of the mountains and their considerable enthusiasm and experience into what they see as a trust for all Canadians and a wilderness experience for tourists.

They lead hikes in the summer — one easy, one more challenging each day — and ski and snowshoe treks in the winter. Breakfast and dinner (they now have a wine and beer license, which obviates the need to haul in wine in your backpack) are provided as part of the package, and lunch is a pack-your-own-for-your-hike deal. I had forgotten how a brisk hike in the mountain air whets one’s appetite, and finding a sunny rock on which to picnic is part of the experience.

One day for lunch we were joined by a cow moose and her yearling calf, wading through Lake Gog and stopping to snack on the lakeside grasses. Ground squirrels and hares are commonplace as is, apparently, a resident grizzly and her cubs that are snuffling around Wonder Pass. She was, said Alex, one of the workers who are preparing the site for renovations, “friendly” and non-aggressive. Should we meet her, “just talk to her,” he said one day. Personally, I’d rather not, I thought, admitting to myself that coming face to face with a grizzly, regardless of her “friendly” status was not my idea of a good time.

But all of that is incidental right now, with Mt. Assiniboine rising before us, 4000 metres into the clouds. On the porch of the lodge, powerful binoculars allow guests to watch the progress of the climbers who, like all of their breed, never met a mountain they didn’t want to clamber up. One day, in the sleeting hail which turned to rain, the consensus was that snuggling down with a book in the sitting room of the lodge made more sense than tackling anything out of doors. This, incidentally, did not deter a group of climbers.

Actually, any whining that might have been occasioned by the weather was immediately quelled the night the staff recognized Margaret’s impending 90th birthday. She was there, with her daughter and son-in-law, Judy and Ken, putting all but the most serious trekkers half her age to shame.

And that’s part of the charm of Assiniboine — the old hands who return every year mix with the first-timers and everyone is on a first-name basis. (The lodge boasts a 100-percent occupancy rate and a 70 percent return rate.)

But one sunny and cloudless day made everything magical again. A seven-kilometre hike through the wildflowers to Sunburst Lake and Cerulean Lake (which is, incidentally, the right colour of sky blue)

The Renners’ stay has not been without rancour or political interference, but that’s my take on the issue, not theirs. They are not critical of the hoops through which the B.C. government (which owns this World Heritage Site), has made them jump over the years. At the most they are frustrated at the typical bureaucracy that perforce surrounds anything any government, likely anywhere in the world, manages to promote.

Even after nearly three decades, the family does not know if the provincial government will find their son’s tender acceptable. Rumour has it that Andre’s proposal is the only one extant.

It is impossible to imagine anyone replacing them and their incredible hospitality.

Getting there from here was an experience in itself. Had we any pre-warning of the state of the gravel Smith-Dorrien/Spray Lakes Highway from Canmore to Mt. Shark, we would have opted for the ride from the Canmore heliport. Whatever provincial department is in charge of such things — presumably the Alberta Ministry of Transportation and the minister in charge, Luke Ouellette — has clearly been playing hooky this summer. The road is pitted with potholes and the parts that aren’t covered in holes that can eat a hubcap, are teeth-jarring, fender-rattling washboard. Nowhere on any provincial government Web site is there a warning about any of Alberta’s highways, let alone this monster. In their colour-coded maps, everything is green all the way, indicating a highway in good condition.

Maybe Minister Ouellette could pry himself loose from Sylvan Lake sometime this summer (he’s the Tory MLA for Sylvan Lake-Innisfail) and take a trip on one of the few highways in Alberta that isn’t paved. Certainly, in the minister’s trips from the Legislature in Edmonton to his constituency office, it’s blacktop all the way. (Although he’s had nothing to do with Highway 11 and 11A, which have been paved since I can remember, so there’s no hint of patronage at work.)

I’m sure some government flunky will patiently explain to anyone who’ll listen that the weather has been iffy all summer and rain has been washing out the gravel roads, but are there no graders available for at least one pass over this highway? Or is it a fact that the Tourism Ministry hold sway over all the tourists areas and nobody wants to tell the tourists to take out extra insurance on their rented car, for fear of frightening away some travelers? Just asking, of course.

How bad is the road? The 42-kilometer ride jarred the battery on the car loose enough to lose the connection. Luckily, there was an SUV at the parking lot, the booster cables were in the trunk, and the profuse swearing at the Minister of Highways in absentia fixed the problem momentarily. The ride back achieved the same end, and the following day a friend gave me a hand and tightened everything back up.

But all that waited for us at the end of our wedding anniversary sojourn

This trip came with a bonus. I still am not an avid hiker, but I realized that the 50 pounds I have shed since our last visit made the rugged outdoors far easier to maneuver. Dare I say it was pleasurable?

Certainly, it was beneficial, and while I already knew that walking was great exercise, it turns out hiking (even without the hiking boots) is even better. Fitness expert Helen Vanderburg says so in The Calgary Herald.

“Hiking can be one of the most comprehensive exercises you can do. Add a backpack and your workout intensity will soar,” she writes. (I admit that Ted hoisted the backpack with our water, lunch, rain gear and the much-used and much-loved book, Wildflowers of the Canadian Rockies by George Scotter and Halle Flygar.)

“Taking a nature hike has added benefits when it comes to training and strengthening the body,” writes Vanderburg.

One of our added benefits? The thrill of running into George Scotter, on one of our walks, as we were consulting his book.

NEXT: “Real” life resumes.


Written by Catherine Ford

August 19, 2010 at 10:47 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. Stunned to learn Assiboine Lodge will be closed for a couple of seasons. That area, inaccessible, as you say, except by foot, helicopter or part way by bicycle, is a precious resource not only for nature’s beauty but also for a taste of western Canadian history…early mountain men – – and women – – exploration of mountains, developing resources for visitors, etc. Glad you went… would love to return, but I guess not this year.

    Barb Scott

    August 20, 2010 at 3:43 pm

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